By Ashley Spratt, USFWS
Watching the coverage of Hurricane Sandy from half a country away in the comforts of my small college town, I wondered how both my friends and colleagues on the east coast were fairing in the days following the storm. I’ve never experienced the wrath of a tropical storm or hurricane, one of the advantages of spending most of my life in the Midwest.
Saltwater influx and decreased water levels were too much for these freshwater fish to survive at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, one of the many refuges affected by Superstorm Sandy. (Photo: Ashley Spratt/USFWS)
On the afternoon of November 2, as I tracked the day’s headlines, reading stories shared online by my old journalism school colleagues now based in New York and New Jersey, and scanning images posted on Facebook and Twitter from friends in the northeast, many still unable to return to their flood-damaged homes along the coast, I received a text from my supervisor.
“Can you go to the northeast this weekend?”
I packed my bags. I couldn’t help but try to also mentally prepare myself for the work environment I recalled from my time working in the Gulf during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Long days, high stress, but worth every single minute.
I had never been to New England, and immediately realized how big this seemingly small region really is.
In the days following Hurricane Sandy, the entire Northeast workforce had been working around the clock. It was the responsibility of the region’s public affairs specialists to keep people informed of impacts to coastal national wildlife refuges, while documenting the destruction by photographing and recording footage on the ground and in the air.
“And it’s not over yet,” Scott Eckert told me. Scott was from the Pacific Northwest Region on a one month detail in the Northeast. “Things have gotten pretty swamped around here since Sandy. Now there’s a nor’easter coming in tomorrow night,” he said.
Due to the pending storm which was forecasted to dump more snow, down more trees, and essentially add insult to injury, we hunkered down at the office, publishing stories as they came in from the field, organizing images by state and refuge, and pitching stories to national and regional media on our agency’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
I came to learn more about coastal refuges like Chincoteague in Virginia, Prime Hook in Delaware, E.B. Forsythe in New Jersey and the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge complex in New York. These were among the refuges most affected by the storm surge, gale force winds and related flooding. We got daily reports from refuge managers in the field who provided updates on refuge closures, staff safety and damage repair activities.
After the nor’easter ran its course leaving only trace amounts of snow in central Massachussetts, I headed to Rhode Island to pursue a developing story about Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, home to the only undeveloped coastal freshwater pond in the state. The closer I got to the coast, the more I saw Hurricane Sandy’s impacts, from shingle-less roofs to downed power lines and trees, now covered by the previous evening’s heavy snowfall.
I met Janis Nepshinsky and Rhonda Smith, USFWS staff from Rhode Island refuge complex at the Trustom Pond contact station just outside of South Kingstown. The station is usually staffed by refuge volunteers and provides educational materials and a white board of recent wildlife sightings at the refuge, not to mention a welcome warm space to escape the cold. Janis, a Rhode Island native, is the refuge complex’s outdoor recreation planner and Rhonda, a transplant from Kentucky, is one of the complex’s wildlife biologists.
As we walked on a trail towards an outdoors education display, Janis explained to me the uniqueness of Trustom Pond refuge, how it was donated to the Service in the 1980s, and its importance to local Rhode Island residents and visitors.
“Here’s an aerial image of what the pond used to look like,” Janis said as she pointed to an aerial image a 160-acre freshwater pond butting up against the Atlantic Ocean, a thin strip of beach separating the two. “Wait ‘til you see what it looks like now. Pockets of the pond are completely dry. It’s like you unplugged a bathtub and drained out all the water,” she said.
This is an aerial shot of Rhode Island's only undeveloped coastal freshwater pond, which sits on Trustom Pond NWR. This photograph was taken in 2010, and shows how the pond and ocean looked prior to the Hurricane Sandy super storm in 2012.
The storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy caused a breach and influx of saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean into Trustom Pond.
Breach along the Rhode Island coastline mixing saltwater and freshwater and ultimately transforming Trustom Pond in the days to follow Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: USFWS)
After a short drive and five-minute hike, the reality was in front of us. Rhonda and Janis both grabbed their binoculars. I could tell from their facial expressions they were taken aback by what lay in front of them. I grabbed my camera. Following the storm surge, water levels dramatically decreased. In under two weeks, the pond went from freshwater to saltwater to nearly no water. As I walked further into the mud, I saw one, two, then three dead fish.
I could not help but beg the question, what does this transformation mean for the wildlife, especially the large number of waterfowl and other migratory bird species that frequent the refuge, and thus local residents and visitors who know and love Trustom Pond for its diversity of wildlife?
“It’s not just the fish that this change is impacting. It’s also the birds that use this habitat,” said Rhonda. Trustom Pond refuge is a popular destination for birding enthusiasts and nature photographers.
“It’s difficult to tell at this point,” said Rhonda. “It may be part of a natural cycle. It may change the diversity of wildlife that uses this area, and support species that usually are not supported. Species that depend on freshwater may go elsewhere.”
Smith said ongoing assessments will be necessary to observe the long term impacts of the storm surge including monitoring the pond’s salinity and conducting bird surveys and wildlife assessments.
As we continued along the path, we passed piles of debris and vegetation, which had been cleared from the trails by sawyers assisting with clean-up on the refuge.
“See this vegetation washed up here?” Janis said. “It’s all from the ocean. This should not be here.” She picked up a handful of bright green plants that appeared to be a type of seaweed, when a visitor to the refuge approached us along the trail.
“This is devastating. This is my home. I come here every day to just walk and be at peace,” he told us. It was clear from the crackling in his voice, and the sentiment of his story, how much this beautiful, undeveloped coastal area meant to him. He went on to describe his memories of Trustom Pond, and how the natural setting helped him deal with many challenges he’s faced in life, including multiple battles against cancer. “This place has kept me alive,” he said.
On the way back to Massachusetts that evening, his story stuck with me. His connection to the land and the water defined him as a person. That thought reminded me why I chose telling conservation stories as a career. The linkages between people and places, people and wildlife, and thus people and conservation, are undeniable. How we work together in the face of natural disaster impacts everything and everyone. And how we care for our natural resources impacts both our future, the future of those natural resources and thus, future generations.
I am beyond grateful for my time in the northeast and the opportunity to meet and interact with many people who in the face of disaster remained optimistic and committed to the recovery of their communities. I am especially grateful to my USFWS peers for standing together during times of crisis. This will not be the last disaster we will face as a conservation community or as a nation, but as I head back home to the Midwest, I feel confident in knowing resolve is embedded in the heart of all our communities.
We will always have each other’s back when challenges arise, because as R. W. Emerson said, “Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”
Check out the Flickr gallery: Transformation at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Ashley Spratt is a public affairs specialist for the USFWS Midwest Region based in Columbia, Mo.